American History Ex: Meet the Godfather of Harlem

It’s Black History Month again… time for school children to learn about Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks and George Washington Carver, perhaps learn how to make peanut butter as well. It’s also a time for liberal guilt… be honest… you don’t even remember who Booker T. Washington is, do you?

Well, that’s ok. I’m not here to judge. In fact, I’m here to tell you that I don’t actually support Black History Month. I’m with Morgan Freeman:

You’re going to relegate my history to a month… I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.

I wholeheartedly agree with him that the idea of Black History Month is “ridiculous.” It’s almost as ridiculous as some of the Blaxploitation films I’ve seen. So, I’m going to use February as an excuse to watch (and re-watch) as many Blaxploitation movies as possible. Ridiculous as some may be, Blaxploitation is still an important part of American history, as are exploitation films in general–even though a large number of them weren’t even made by American filmmakers–so I’m also going to take the opportunity to start this new exploitation-centric column, American History Ex. Bryan’s started the “classy” column, I’m starting the “trashy.” Of course, there are a few spots where the two will intersect… but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

And so we turn to Black Caesar, Larry Cohen‘s Blaxploitation re-imagining of the gangster films of the 1930’s, specifically Little Caesar and Scarface: Shame of a Nation. Cohen’s 1973 film is actually pretty far from ridiculous, finding its way onto Empire magazine’s list of “20 Greatest Gangster Movies You’ve Never Seen* (*Probably).”

Fred Williamson stars as Tommy Gibbs, an ambitious young hood with eyes on becoming more than just the “Godfather of Harlem.” Up against racist cops and mobsters, Gibbs claws his way to the top in a bloody fight for supremacy that finds both the Italian mob and the crooked cops in his pocket, of course they’re none-too-happy about it. It’s hard enough being a crime lord in the first place, racial tension just adds fuel to the fire.

Cohen’s fast-paced guerrilla filmmaking (more often than not filming violent confrontations on crowded New York City streets without permits) makes for an amazingly visceral gangster picture. Fred Williamson swaggers through the film, making Gibbs a fearless force to be reckoned with, tearing through the underworld.

Adding to the film’s quick tempo, James Brown’s soundtrack keeps things moving with a funk-fueled soul sound, a key element to Blaxploitation in general. The music is more often than not the foundation on which a good Blaxploitation film is built. Gritty, raw, and action-packed, but with a message–“crime doesn’t pay”–Black Caesar is definitely the cream of the Blaxploitation crop.

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3 responses to “American History Ex: Meet the Godfather of Harlem

  1. So are you a magical negro or an Uncle Tom?

    But seriously, I’ve never heard of this movie. This will be an education.

  2. That clip pretty much showcases our friendship.

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